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Review of the Saga of the Volsungs

While the most famous medieval epics are those from the West, namely the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, the Spanish Song of the Cid, and the French Song of Roland, some of the most prolific writers from the Middle Ages were the Danes and Norse in Scandanavia, hardy souls that were also prolific writers (for the time) and devoted the time and resources necessary to preserve, in writing, the traditional stories of their culture.

Thanks to them, numerous stories that likely would have been lost to the sands of history have been preserved, one of the most famous of which is The Saga of the Volsungs. The tale, which follows a family descended from Odin, was the inspiration for The Lord of the Rings and numerous other fantasy works. Even Beowulf, an epic poem that was probably created around the same time, names some of the same characters that are in The Saga of the Volsungs. As Jackson Crawford, who edited the version I read, puts it:

The ill-fated romances, tragic murders, and larger-than-life wars of the Volsung family are alluded to and celebrated in numerous poems, sagas, and works of art produced in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, and the Saga of the Volsungs is the most cohesive form of their story that has survived to be read in the modern age.

It’s popular not only because of its age, but because of the astoundingly good stories within it. Odin, Attila the Hun, and various Norse warriors are present in the story and fight, trick, and guide each other on the path to glory.

The basic story is this:

Volsung is the first major human character of the Saga of the Volsungs, a king in the mythical realm of Hunland, where he builds a hall around the great tree Barnstokk (the name of the tree can be literally read as “child tree” or, more idiomatically, “family tree”). During the wedding of Volsung’s daughter Signý to Siggeir, Óđin appears in disguise and lodges a sword in Barnstokk, which only Volsung’s son Sigmund is able to retrieve. Siggeir later ambushes and kills his father-in-law Volsung and most of Volsung’s sons. Only Sigmund escapes to live in the forest for years, plotting his vengeance. Signý disguises herself and conceives a son with Sigmund, Sinfjotli, who becomes Sigmund’s apprentice and companion.

After Sigmund and Sinfjotli kill Siggeir and return to claim the throne of Hunland, Sigmund marries Borghild, who kills Sinfjotli with a poisoned drink. Sigmund remarries to Hjordís, but he dies shortly afterwards. Hjordís then gives birth to their son Sigurđ. As a grown {xii} man, Sigurđ later becomes famous for killing the dragon Fáfnir. After being advised by some wagtails, he then meets the Valkyrie Brynhild, who has sworn an oath to marry only the man who knows no fear. Sigurđ passes her test of courage by riding through a ring of fire, and the two of them promise to marry, but Sigurđ leaves her side for the realm of King Gjúki, where Sigurđ is magically tricked into forgetting Brynhild and then marrying Gjúki’s daughter Guđrún. Disguised as Guđrún’s brother Gunnar, Sigurđ later rides through the ring of fire a second time and wins Brynhild’s promise to marry Gunnar. Brynhild soon discovers that she has been deceived into breaking her oath, and orders Gunnar to kill Sigurđ. Gunnar is unwilling to break his own oath of blood-brotherhood with Sigurđ but gets his younger brother Guttorm to commit the murder. Brynhild kills herself at Sigurđ’s funeral and joins him in Hel. Guđrún is married a second time to Atli, who covets Sigurđ’s treasure that is now owned by Guđrún’s brothers Gunnar and Hogni. Atli invites them to a feast, where he ambushes and kills them. Guđrún avenges them by killing Atli and her children with him. She then attempts to drown herself and Svanhild (her daughter with Sigurđ), but the waves take her instead to Jónakr, who becomes the father of her sons Hamđir, Sorli, and Erp. After Jormunrekk, a neighboring king who had intended to marry Svanhild, kills her instead for her infidelity, Guđrún’s sons go to avenge their half sister, but Hamđir and Sorli kill Erp along the way, and without his help they are killed by Jormunrekk’s men.

As you can hopefully tell, it’s a fantastic tale that, like The Illiad or Gilgamesh, gets to the root of what it means to be human. The characters in it are great men and women, some of their culture’s best. They’re even descended from a god! Yet they’re still all too human. Vanity, ego, trickery, and drunkenness all play a role, dragging down great heroes and driving along the story.

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But it’s not only about the shortcomings of the heroes; most of it is about the titanic accomplishments of the Volsung family and what qualities made them great, as these brief passages show:

“The boy was given the name Volsung, and he became the king of Hunland after his father Rerir. He grew big and strong at a young age, and he was very bold in every kind of deed that requires manliness and courage. He became a very great warrior, and he was victorious in his battles.”

“Then King Volsung said: “Everyone will say that I swore, while still in my mother’s womb, that I would never flee in fear from iron nor from fire, and I have kept that oath all of my days until now—and why would I not keep it in my old age? And no women will mock my sons, saying that they feared to die. Everyone will die someday, and no one can escape death when his time has come. I say that we will not flee but will do everything we can in the boldest way. I have fought in a hundred battles, sometimes with the larger army and sometimes with the smaller, and yet I have always had the victory. It will never be said that I fled, nor that I begged for peace.”

“though Sigmund was old, he fought hard and he was always at the front of his men. Neither shield nor armor could protect a man from him, and he went again and again into the army of his enemies on that day,”

“Sigurđ said, “My courage made me do it, and my strong hand helped, and this sharp sword which you felt inside you got it done. Not many men are brave in adulthood, if they were cowards as boys.”’

Each passage gets to the root of what it meant to be a great man in Norse culture. It wasn’t wealth or wit, it was bravery and strength. They prized being able to tear one’s enemies to pieces far more than any “soft” skill that was prized in the West. It’s no wonder they decimated the Anglo-Saxons and French.

It also means, however, that the language of the story is a bit simple, as you probably noticed from those passages. The story is told well, but the phrases like “rosy-fingered dawn” from other epics aren’t there.

All in all, it’s a great story. The dragon Fafnir, the Valkerie Brynhild, the various kings and battles, it’s all just amazing and it’s no wonder that The Saga of the Volsungs inspired many greats, from Tolkein to Wagner.

By: Gen Z Conservative. Follow me on Gab and Facebook